Sharing History: Summer at Fort Mackinac

By working as a soldier at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island, Niall Farley’s summer job in Michigan is anything but ordinary. Today he shares a little bit about what this role entails.

I wake up a little before 8am, get ready and grab my bicycle for the short ride to work. Not uncommon for college-aged folks working summer jobs in Michigan, but my summer job is anything but common.

I am a soldier at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island.

Now in my fourth season, I’m responsible for overseeing the daily interpretative programs as lead interpreter. Dressed as a sergeant in the U.S. Army in the 1880s, I lead tours through the fort, clean, prime, load and fire a model 1841 cannon and an original Springfield 45/70 rifle.

This is the 55th year of historical interpretive programming at Mackinac State Historic Parks. Each year, May through mid-October, we open our gates to visitors from every state and more than 50 countries. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job, seeing how much not just people from Michigan, but people from all over the world enjoy the view, the history and taking part in our interpretive programs

I was drawn to this job for a number of reasons–the chance to spend my summers on beautiful Mackinac Island, the opportunity to tell stories about this fascinating place, and of course, the hats.

During the winter, I study as an English major at Oakland University in Rochester Hills and live in my small hometown of Almont. While history has not been my area of study, I’ve become fascinated by the important events that have taken place throughout the Straits of Mackinac, and sharing them with visitors makes my every day at Fort Mackinac an enjoyable experience, it hardly seems like work.

Are you planning to explore the history at Fort Mackinac this summer? Share with us below!

Back to School… Back to Mackinac Island

It’s the first week of school for many students in Michigan, which means field trips are on the horizon. Today, guest blogger Tom Byrum tells us what makes a class trip to Mackinac Island so special. Byrum has escorted or helped arrange for over 2,500 young people to visit Mackinac over the last 20 years.

For twenty years I have been leading elementary field trips “Up North” to the Straits Of Mackinac. Thousands of young people and their parents have enjoyed the unique magic of Mackinac and returned with special Mackinac memories.

The kids are in awe with their first sighting of the Mackinac Bridge. The anticipation of our Star Line ferry leaving the harbor bursts when Captain Chuck blasts the horn. Nobody fails to jump out of their seats. The first sighting of Grand Hotel and Fort Mackinac – big and white on top of the Island’s bluff – signals we are almost there.

Checking in at the Inn on Mackinac or the Murray Hotel creates a buzz of excitement about this beautiful hotel being our home for the next two days. It finally sets in that we are on one of the most unique islands on Earth.  No cars; just horses and bicycles. There is no traffic noise; just the gulls, boat horns, and horse’s hooves clomping on the pavement.

The best memories have been the bike rides around the Island. We stop for pictures at Arch Rock, British Landing (pose on the cannon) and Devil’s Kitchen.

The visits to the forts are full of wonderful stories and history. The cannons and guns are so loud!

Grand Hotel is aptly named. What a view from the Cupola and the world’s longest front porch. We get to eat lunch here too! Wow!

Everyone seems to sleep well each night as we listen to taxis going by. Before you know it, it’s time to pack up, say goodbye, take class pictures with goofy hats on and head to the ferry dock.

The tour buses are waiting after another smooth crossing of the Straits. Loaded up, we are on to Mill Creek. History, nature, and who gets to be the pit man during the pit saw demonstration?

Back in Mackinaw City we say good bye to Fort Michilimackinac to our right, Mackinac Island to our left and the Bridge behind us. On we go for a safe trip home full of Mackinac memories with deep anticipation of bringing our next group of elementary students to Mackinac Island.

Tom Byrum has escorted or helped arrange for over 2,500 young people and even more chaperon family members to come Up North to the Straits over the last 20 years. He is a retired educator and has started a small business called Mackinac, Here We Come so he can continue to help people enjoy and learn from a trip to the Straits Of Mackinac. You can contact Tom at MackinacMan22@gmail.com to arrange your Mackinac Island field trip. 

Mackinac Memories: A Trip to Dance For

Today on our blog, Jolene Priest shares her family’s experience while visiting Mackinac Island.

Mackinac Island has always been a part of me. I grew up an hour away, visited Fort Mackinac on an eighth grade class trip (I have a photo of me in an 1880’s American solider uniform to prove it) and even worked there. So, in September of 2010, it was no wonder that, when I learned my father-in-law had never been to Mackinac Island, I needed—absolutely, unequivocally needed—to take my family there.

My parents-in-law drove up from Mt. Pleasant to our Cheboygan home the night before our visit. Early the next morning, my husband, three-year-old daughter, who only wanted to see the “horsies,” my parents-in-law, and I packed into our truck by 8:00 a.m. to catch an early ferry across the Straits of Mackinac to Mackinac Island.

Once there, and after we starred a while at all the “horsies,” we walked a short distance to the Mackinac Island Carriage Tour ticket booth and got our spots on a carriage. For the next hour and forty-five minutes, we enjoyed a carriage tour around the island to my daughter’s constant gibber-jabbering and the carriage tour driver’s amusing fast-facts about everything we saw.

During the tour, we stopped at Arch Rock, a beautiful limestone formation on the island’s east shoreline. It offers a majestic view of Lake Huron. I think the word “majestic” must have been conceptualized right here. During another stop, the Wings of Mackinac Butterfly Conservatory, my daughter chased butterflies while we chased her.

Finally, the carriage tour stopped at our premier destination, the reason for our visit – Fort Mackinac, built 150-feet above the Straits of Mackinac during the American Revolution. Even in September, there was more to do than we had time. We checked out the Kids’ Quarters in the Officers’ Stone Quarters (Michigan’s oldest public building) filled with uniforms just my daughter’s size (recall my 8th grade memory), a giant, playable fife and a half-sized cannon with a pull-string for that original cannon blast sound. I may have played more than my daughter. The jury’s still out.

While my husband and parents-in-law explored other buildings (all original!), my daughter and I danced on the parade ground to live fife music and marched like—and with—the soldiers. When my daughter dances, I always find the courage to do it myself.  People may have gawked at me—in fact, I’m pretty sure they did.  I’m one of those who never really finds the rhythm, but it didn’t matter right then. There’s something about Mackinac that lets a person relax. And dance.

Lunch at the Tea Room Restaurant within Fort Mackinac was a special treat. We watched Great Lakes freighters slowly move through the Straits while we leaned against the white picket fence, cool September breezes bringing that scent of fresh water right to us. My father-in-law warned us not to stray too close to the edge of the bluff. We all have fears. Mine was missing the carriage that would take us back downtown.

So, as the time for the last carriage departure of the day neared, I stood guard at the Fort exit like the soldiers before me. My parents-in-law had decided to tour one last exhibit, the largest, “An Island Famous in These Regions,” in the Soldiers’ Barracks. As the carriage pulled up and I saw only a couple seats left open, I made a frantic cell phone call to my mother-in-law while pleading for the carriage tour driver to wait just a couple minutes longer. He did. They finally came rushing out, both wishing for an entire day at the Fort, and got on the carriage. They got the last two seats. But that was for the best because the walk back was like a dance. My husband, daughter and I held hands and took our final stroll down fort hill road to meet them back downtown. And, of course, to buy fudge.

Jolene Priest, her husband and their five-year-old daughter now live in Mt. Pleasant, not far from her parents-in-law. Priest is a marketing and communications specialist with the Department of Natural Resources in Lansing. Follow her on Twitter (@jolenepriest).